Thursday, July 27, 2017

Methodist Minister Performs First Religious Service in Idaho [otd 07/27]

Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1840.
Illustration for Harper’s Magazine,
November 1892.
On July 27, 1834, Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth was working at his new Fort Hall site [blog, July 14]. In his Journal he recorded that a Frenchman named "Kanseau" had been killed during a horse race.

Kanseau worked for the Hudson's Bay Company and, Wyeth wrote, "his comrades erected a decent tomb for him. Service for him was performed by the Canadians in the Catholic form, by Mr. Lee in the Protestant form, and by the Indians in their form, as he had Indian family. He at least was well buried."

The Catholic form was surely the ad hoc performance one might expect from a rough band of men who had been away from civilization for years. However, the Reverend Jason Lee would have performed the official Methodist funerary rites, so Lee is credited with conducting the first European religious services held in Idaho.

Lee was born near the tiny village of Stanstead, which now straddles the Canadian border. At the time, the area was part of Vermont, so Lee was born a U. S. citizen. He spent several years as a logger, then felt "the call" and attended Wesleyan Academy, a Methodist prep school.

Then a sequence that was apparently equal parts religious fervor and well-meaning humbug captured the imagination of church leaders. The scheme is too convoluted to give the details here. In sum, zealous churchmen learned of a fruitless meeting between an Indian delegation and William Clark, now essentially Indian Agent for the West. These evangelists transformed the Indians’ confused inquiry into an eloquent, heart-felt plea for religious enlightenment.

As a result, the church felt a need to send missionaries to carry the white man's religion to the "benighted savages" of the Oregon Country. (That designation encompassed all of our Pacific Northwest, plus a goodly chunk of today's British Columbia).

Rev. Jason Lee.
Oregon Historical Society.
To the man tasked with selecting a leader, Lee – sturdy and vigorous from his hard work outdoors – seemed the only possible candidate. But neither Lee nor, apparently, anyone else in the church had the slightest notion of how to organize an expedition into the wilds of the Oregon Country. 

Enter Nathaniel Wyeth, preparing for his second trading venture into the area. His extant letters give no indication as to why he agreed to shepherd the missionary party west, although some imaginative and plausible ideas have been advanced. Wyeth might have simply decided that the presence of American missionaries would encourage emigration from the States. That, in turn, would help him break the British-Canadian monopoly in the Oregon Country.

Wyeth's second venture failed as miserably as the first. However, if he did foresee the Methodist party as an opening wedge, he was indeed correct. Jason Lee turned out to be a better settlement builder than missionary, although he founded quite a number of missions. He proved far more effective at helping to organize a new, American government for what became Oregon Territory.
                                                                                 
References: [B&W], [French]
Malcom Clark, Eden Seekers: The Settlement of Oregon, 1818-1862, Houghton Mifflin Company (1981).
Nathaniel J. Wyeth, Don Johnson (ed.), The Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country 1831-1836, Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington (1984).

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